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Study looks for clues to lesser prairie chicken survival

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, June 15, 2013, at 8:01 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, May 10, 2014, at 12:22 p.m.

— The size and color of Easter peeps with a few chocolate smudges for camo, the eight fuzzball chicks spent their first post-egg night clustered beneath a hen for warmth and security.

Their hours-old life of simplicity turned to chaos last Sunday's dawn when the hen flushed and gave an alarm call that scattered the brood like a rack of well-smacked pool balls. Rather than the jaws of a coyote, it was the quick hands of Reid Plumb and two helpers that snatched up the chicks.

Minutes later two of the little lesser prairie chickens carried tracking transmitters one-fourth the size and weight of a dime as they ran to the comforting calls of the hen.

In about 10 days the birds could be capable of short flight, and within a few weeks flying to the far horizons of Kansas' best lesser prairie chicken country.

And for years the birds could be part of study spread across five states because horizons are shrinking for lessers in other lands.

There are probably more lessers on some Kansas ranches than in Colorado. Gove County, alone, may have more birds than Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma combined. Not many years ago, the latter two states compared well with Kansas.

"We have to see why things are going so good here," Plumb said of his ongoing research in Gove and Logan Counties. "We need those answers so we can compare them to places with decreasing populations."

Plummeting populations

Lessers have never had a wide range, a vertical oval containing minor parts of Kansas, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Yet they sometimes lived in amazing densities. Early 1900s accounts report flocks of hundreds or thousands feeding on cropfields.

Resilient, the birds survived the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and another hideous drought in 1950s. From there came about three decades of posterity.

“In 1986 I caught (and tagged for research) 285, and that’s just in a few square miles,” said Dave Haukos, then a researching graduate student in west Texas. “That was probably the high point in recent times.”

Now a K-State-based biologist and educator directing lesser research programs in Kansas and Colorado, he said the birds have since been basically on a downward spiral in states besides Kansas.

The ever-present villain of wildlife — loss of good habitat —gets much of the blame, as prairies were converted to cropfields and energy production pocked more of the landscape. Invasions of cedars, cottonwoods and other trees and bushes also hurt. While prairie chickens can endure brutal winters and scorching summers, they demand broad stretches of unbroken, lush natural prairie to survive.

If the loss of habitat was the haymaker that put the birds on the ropes, many localized populations were sent to the mat when a nasty multi-year drought pounded them, too. Drought leaves adult birds more vulnerable to predation, and makes their eggs and young sitting chicks for about any wild thing with teeth or talons.

Within about the past 15 years, though, the birds have become downright common in the grasslands of west-central Kansas. More than a dozen Kansas counties north of the Arkansas River, once considered their northern boundary, appear to be the

new promised land for lesser prairie chickens. Biologists credit the prevalence of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands in the region for helping with the species’ spread.

But the downward spiraling population in other areas trumped the great news in west-central Kansas. About two years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expressed a serious interest in placing the birds on their threatened or endangered species list. Such a listing could come as early as this fall.

New equipment

For several years the five involved states have been working together, hoping to bolster the populations and possibly stop a federal listing that could place limitations on many land-use practices across the region. The biggest study ever, at least in Kansas, began this spring.

Plumb said a region of southwest Kansas and southeast Colorado is being studied because their populations are in rapid decline. A spot in the Red Hills, southwest of Pratt, because it is a place of relative stability. Logan and Gove counties, south of Oakley, are included because the birds thrive in the region.

Haukos estimates the study will take at least three years, and about $3 million. Funding is from several sources, with much coming from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. Robin Jennison, department secretary, said some of the money is from hunting license fees, and much from excise taxes on hunting and shooting equipment.

Helping the researchers, who are largely graduate students from Kansas State, Plumb included, is some true space-age technology. As well as traditional tracking transmitters, many birds have been fitted with GPS transmitters that log the bird’s location every few hours, giving biologists a 24/7 look at the lives of the lessers.

Beginning in early spring, crews live-trapped lessers on breeding grounds and fitted them with transmitters. Most were attached to hens so they could study the dynamics of nesting. It is also how researchers find the tiny chicks to which they attach fly-sized transmitters.

Last Sunday and Monday, the researchers put the chick transmitters to work.

Transmission showed three hens had recently left their nesting sites, a sign the eggs had just hatched and the new family was wandering the prairie. Moving in at dawn so the hen was still on her nighttime roost, with her chicks gathered below, Plumb and helpers made quick work of their hunt. The gathered chicks were placed in a cooler where a bottle of hot water kept them warm.

Each chick was quickly weighed, measured and two fitted with transmitters. Most times the hens stay within a few yards, flapping and clucking, trying to draw perceived predators away from her clan.

One of the hens had eight chicks and another had nine. One had none, probably due to predation.

So far it appears that’s the region’s biggest problem — getting chicks to hatch and survive.

As of Saturday, the 38 hens Plumb is studying have produced five broods. Two of those hatched broods had 100-percent mortality within about two days. Several hens were still incubating eggs.

Of the four chicks fitted with transmitters last week, two died within a few days. “The 106 degree weather probably had something to do with it,” Plumb said. He said heat probably led to the deaths of the wiped-out broods, too.

Tuesday, a nest soon to hatch decreased from 12 eggs to four. With no cracked shells, Plumb assumed a snake was the culprit.

Yet at the same time telemetry is telling that nothing wants lesser prairie chickens to succeed more than the birds, themselves.

Sunday and Monday, biologists saw hens on breeding grounds with males, possibly wanting to breed again after losing a nest. One hen, having already lost two clutches of eggs, is sitting on her third nest, which contains eight new eggs.

“You have to give her credit for trying,” Plumb said. “That’s impressive.”

And biologists across five states are also trying. For every hour of tracking telemetry fun comes several of drudgery, like hands-and-knees studies of the places the birds prefer and are successful. Vegetation is identified, and its height and density noted.

“We want to find out what the minimum is that they need to do well,” Plumb said, “and see if it can be duplicated in other areas.”

As days roll into months and years, they’re hoping to learn what it will take to help the species thrive.

In the meantime, a little rain could go a long, long way.

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